Eleven weeks from now is our 50 Year Anniversary Gala. More than just a milestone birthday party, this event serves as the kickoff for the Washington Youth Soccer Foundation.
To more fully understand what the Washington Youth Soccer Foundation means for growing the game and providing access to the underserved, we share a conversation with the individual coordinating foundation operations, Hillary Beehler.
Tell us about your role as senior director of member services and programs.
I help support the local soccer club and the association board of directors in understanding their role in serving on a board of directors.
I try to provide local leaders with support because they’re volunteers and to help them make soccer happen at the local level. I see my job as trying to connect them to resources, support and leadership as effectively as possible.
What’s the Foundation’s current status?
It is incorporated as a non-profit in Washington state. We’ve had the first organizational meeting as a non-profit and we started with three board members who are also members of the Washington Youth Soccer board.
The general goals of what we want to accomplish are providing more opportunities for youth to play soccer, focusing on the underserved community.
How can the Foundation help bring soccer to the underserved?
One of the ways we currently do that in Washington Youth Soccer is the Soccer for Success program (directed by Rachel Wilton), a program that works in communities in south King County. Soccer for Success provides an after school soccer experience three times a week for two 12-week sessions, with healthy lifestyle information and really encouraging living a healthy life while using soccer as the vehicle.
We’d like to do more programming, and we would also like to help increase support for the organizations already doing soccer and support for building more facilities, whether that’s though some type of grant process or a combination of direct service and granting through the foundation.
What will the Foundation do for the youth of Washington?
One of the things we’ve noticed, and from my own personal experience, we know at the high levels of soccer it is very expensive to play. Families spend thousands of dollars on playing at the competitive level. But we also have financial barriers to recreational soccer, and it’s not just financial barriers with registration fees but transportation barriers. How do we get soccer imbedded in an area that families can actually access, especially if they don’t have the means to travel great distances? Because Soccer for Success is based at the elementary schools the children attend (in Highline, Kent and Auburn school districts), it makes it much more accessible to participate in a soccer experience.
Those after-school hours are important in their day because that’s when they are most vulnerable. Trying to provide a healthy activity right after school for elementary kids where are adults present – it energizes the kids. It’s much easier for some families to participate in something directly after school than it would be to try and participate in a traditional recreational soccer program. But also one of our beliefs is that there’s an inherent value in organized participation, in addition to free play, and part of that is making an organization an inclusive community from the start.
Who partners with Washington Youth Soccer in such a program?
What’s great about Soccer for Success is every organization or adult involved provide a really great soccer experience for these kids. It’s something they may not have access to in any other fashion. It’s a free program for the participants. Rachel works incredibly hard to find quality coaches for these kids, including teachers from each school, to provide that mentorship angle, and we try to bring in other community partners.
We’ve been fortunate to work with the Seattle Sounders to bring in players and have them speak to the kids, involving family engagement in a way that’s different from traditional soccer clubs. They do an engagement event at least once per season where the families, the kids, the coaching staff and often the school officials all come together in the evening. They do a big potluck and recognize the kids for their attendance and participation and involve the parents and the family in the whole soccer experience. It’s unlike the traditional soccer experience of dropping the kids off at soccer practice and watching the games on the weekend. It’s a holistic approach.
What are some of the outcomes of Soccer for Success?
Studies indicate 21 percent of kids in King County are at an unhealthy weight. One of the program goals is to address childhood obesity and get the kids moving, and you see attitude changes in the kids and what their goals are, on and off the field. A lot of the kids are more understanding of nutrition and the importance of fruits, vegetables and activity as part of a healthy lifestyle, and it also translates into school participation as well as at home. They see soccer after school as a reward if they work well in class with their fellow students. It’s really creating this whole mentorship cycle and so it’s much more than what families experience in the traditional soccer club.
Soccer is such a good tool for all of these other things in the world because it’s something that really brings people together. They make healthier choices, they stay away from fighting in school, and some daughters with brothers now have access to soccer, too. There’s this teamwork that happens when playing together, they build relationships across social groups.
Our goal is to make all families feel included in the soccer community and connect them with regular soccer playing opportunities, like local rec or competitive leagues as they are interested, because they are all part of the soccer community.
Proceeds from Washington Youth Soccer’s upcoming 50 Year Anniversary Gala will benefit the Washington Youth Soccer Foundation. Among the Foundation’s objectives is making soccer accessible to more and more youth, and that’s an issue that hits home for Foundation coordinator Hillary Beehler.
Knowing that must be rewarding, improving kids’ lives through sport?
When I was growing up, there was a period of time when my family was pretty poor. I didn’t even ask to play soccer. I wanted to. My older brother played, but I just knew in that moment we really couldn’t afford and so I didn’t ask.
That’s what I really love about our program. It takes away that fear of kids wanting to ask their parents to play. It completely eliminates that concern. We want everybody playing soccer and so we will meet you where you’re at. It takes that piece away from the family.
So making it an after-school program is a game-changer?
When you look at soccer across the world, we have to make it much more accessible in this country. Things like costs continuing to rise through soccer organizations and referees and facilities and everything you can think of impacts the game of soccer. To be able to provide this really great curriculum with these great soccer people involved and offer this opportunity is pretty transformative for some of these kids, and I think it changes their family dynamics. The kids relate to the parents and parents relate to the kids.
I’m definitely passionate about it. It’s so simple but much harder in practice to make these things happen. We’re lucky to have people like Rachel Wilton and the school partners we have, to have this great program. If we had our way we’d want to offer this in as many schools as possible. We have to start with building this foundation up through the gala and continue to build out and provide opportunities.
Is the Foundation about more than a Soccer for Success program?
This is only the beginning of bringing attention to the fact that we can make a very direct impact to kids’ lives through soccer, and we can do it in partnerships with clubs and associations. Starting this foundation, our goal is not just to run the Soccer for Success program, but to also increase access to facilities and improve them and make sure more facilities are getting full usage.
We also want to look at supporting Washington Youth Soccer clubs and associations and increasing the access to their organizations and we want to continue mapping out what that would mean. For example, if you are a local association where we are running Soccer for Success, how can we reduce the barriers for those kids looking for that regular soccer experience, how we can help connect them with member clubs and associations? We want to lift everyone at the same time.
It’s absolutely about the next 50 years of soccer and how can we partner with other organizations in the soccer community–schools, municipalities and corporate partners–to do something we know works. We know this program has some real results for these kids. We want to increase that impact across the entire state.
Will it be coming to other corners of the state soon?
The program is run through a grant from the US Soccer Foundation. If we want to expand the program to other areas, we’d have to go through a separate grant application process that would be part of our overall grant. We’ve had interest in the programs from Yakima and Tri-Cities, and we’d like to be in other areas of the state.
A lot of it is dependent on getting the community support to help fund this type of programming. It’s very cost effective for the impact it provides. It costs less than $6000 for one school for the 45-60 kids participating for a year of healthy snacks, equipment, coaching and mentorship. We also provide jerseys, balls, shin guards, and socks to all participants.
If we can build the community support, we would love to build the size of this program, and a lot of that depends on the success of the gala and making certain we design a sustainable program. Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s sustainable in those areas.
So the gala is a key piece to providing more kids with a chance to play soccer.
This is one of those moments where Washington Youth Soccer is really looking toward the future and realizing there’s so much that goes into supporting youth soccer. In establishing this separate foundation, we want to focus on access to facilities, focus on local support of soccer programs in a way to be laser-focused on those issues and improving that philanthropic impact of Washington Youth Soccer.
We’re celebrating the last 50 years and in looking forward, we don’t know what youth soccer is going to look like, but we do know there are thousands of kids in this state that should be playing soccer. It’s our job to help find opportunities. We’re excited about it and we’re very fortunate to have the support of the Sounders, MLS WORKS, and the US Soccer Foundation. They put in the mini pitch at Beverly Park Elementary. We’re excited that it’s a different direction from where Washington Youth Soccer has typically operated. So the gala is much like a big game. It’s our kickoff time and I’m pretty excited about that.